Saturday, 4 January 2014 00:00
By Kalinga Seneviratne
BANGKOK (IPS): Mobile broadband services are seen as a key tool of development communication the world over, but people in rural Asia and Africa say telecom companies should cater to their needs and not simply impose technology on them.
Experts say spreading the benefits of the digital revolution to rural areas poses a huge challenge for telecom companies, which have so far focused on urban markets.
“The telecom industry has had an easy ride so far. It hasn’t seen what’s coming to them,” Mark Summers, co-founder of Inveneo, a non-profit company promoting broadband connection in Africa warned at the Telecom World 2013 conference here last month.
He was immediately challenged by a Zimbabwean in the audience who said he lived in a rural area and didn’t need the technology they had all been talking about. He wondered if telecom companies ever asked people like him what they wanted before trying to connect them to the technology.
Similar debates had taken place in the 1970s and 1980s when radio was promoted as a development communication tool, mainly by Western consultants.
“They talk of us as if we are uneducated,” Reuben Gwatidzo of the Information Society Initiative Trust of Zimbabwe told IPS.
Gwatidzo said it wasn’t necessary to learn someone else’s language or to have high literacy to be a good carpenter, farmer or build one’s own house.
“The education they want to bring is education that will draw a wedge between me and my way of life,” he said. He said he was not against new technology but rural people must be allowed to choose what they want, and not have some “international strategy” imposed on them.
The telecom meet was organised by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in the Thai capital. The meet picked up on longstanding issues.
ITU estimates there will be over 6.8 billion mobile phone subscribers around the world by the end of 2013, but points out that there are 1.1 billion people who do not have access to the internet, with 90% of them in the developing world.
Telecom companies – which target urban markets – have increased their revenue by 12% between 2007 and 2011. The industry is largely driven by private operators.
Many argue that private companies are not interested in rural markets because of low purchasing power and high cost of connectivity and that is why governments should step in to provide connections.
“The real challenge is how to structure spectrum allocation to attract carriers to both urban and rural sectors,” said Safroadu Yeboah-Amankwah, a Ghanaian telecom sector analyst.
“The truth is rural markets are not attractive, but there are mechanisms to address them, including government intervention through which you can tax the urban markets to subsidise the rural markets,” he told IPS.
Role of the government
But not everyone is convinced about the role of the government.
Dhaka-based Abu Saeed Khan, senior policy fellow at LIRNEasia, an ICT policy and regulation think tank, argues that governments can create problems too.
“In Bangladesh, the Government has auctioned this bandwidth. It is not cheap, so private operators load the price on the package,” he told IPS.
“When it comes to internet bandwidth, operators don’t have direct access because the Government has erected a barrier – a middleman – so the cost of internet bandwidth is too high for consumers,” he said.
ITU’s report, ‘Measuring Information Society 2013’, argues that people living outside major cities in developing countries are the ones for whom information and communication technology (ICT) can have the greatest development impact.
In many countries across Asia and Africa, schools and health centres are connected to mobile and broadband technology and farmers are provided information on crop protection and marketing.
For instance, the International Fertiliser Development Centre provides information via mobile phones to farmers in five African countries to protect them from counterfeit fertilisers.
In Malaysia, seaweed farmer Kabila Hassan has set up a successful business – also providing employment to half her village – by using the internet to market products in China, Japan and the US She received the ITU’s Transformational Power of Broadband Digital Icon Award 2013 here in Bangkok for it.
New development anchor
Brahima Sanou, who is from Burkina Faso and is director of the Telecom Development Bureau at ITU, believes mobile phones can be the new development anchor.
He pointed out several examples of this – such as Senegal where fishermen use mobile phones to find out the price of fish before they come ashore; Rwanda where it is used to follow government services in rural areas; and Costa Rica where it is used to combat non-communicable diseases.
“People who never had access to any technology are now using mobile phones. We have to develop (services) for people (through) what they own already, not bring new tools,” he said.
Dr. Rohan Samarajiva, a Sri Lankan telecom expert who is the founding chair of LIRNEasia, told IPS that the findings of a six-country sample survey on how poor people were revealing.
“It is very clear that they are accessing more than voice services through wireless platforms,” he said. “We were surprised when, while doing research with poor people in Java (Indonesia), they clearly stated they were not using the internet, but later they started talking about Facebook and various other activities.”
“This shows that they are using mobile phones without necessarily going through the steps they think are necessary to use the internet,” Dr. Samarajiva noted.
He said their sister organisation in Africa had the same findings.
“So it’s a different conception of the internet,” he said. “The whole world is moving towards mobile devices. We will see an explosion of its use.”
As phones are transforming from merely voice communicators to what is called 3G or 4G, which transmits voice, visuals and data, a large chunk of humanity in rural Asia and Africa is waiting for a transformation in their lives but with technology that is relevant to their needs.